That James M.
Cain was a genius is never more evident than when you watch other authors
try to make a character's participation in his own degradation and his
eager embrace of certain doom seem plausible. In Ian McEwan's Comfort
of Strangers, an unhappy British couple, Colin and Mary, are in the moidst
of a perfectly horrid vacation in Venice when they meet Robert, a cheesy
seeming, imitation disco king, Eurotrash, local bar owner. He takes
them under his wing and tells them the brutal but very amusing story of
growing up with a domineering father who favors him and several bitterly
jealous sisters. Later he takes them back to meet his rather ephemeral,
somewhat crippled wife, who tells them, as they are leaving, that she is
For no apparent reason, this encounter rekindles the passion between
Colin and Mary, though they studiously avoid discussing the episode and
seek to avoid any subsequent meetings with Robert. Inevitably, they
do eventually see him again and the results are predictably ugly.
Stories like this one, which require the reader to suspend disbelief
as the actors venture further and further into the abyss are extremely
hard to pull off, so it's not surprising that McEwan doesn't quite manage
it. First off, Colin and Mary are so unsympathetic that, as in The
Sheltering Sky which it in some ways resembles, we eagerly await the
tourists getting their just desserts. More troubling, Robert, despite
his one captivating story, is so obviously shady that Colin and Mary seem
totally stupid for getting involved with him. An author can get away
with making his characters naive, but at the point where the reader is
yelling at them and calling them idiots for following along with the novel's
plot, that author has lost control of his own narrative.
On the upside, the book offers further proof, as if any was needed,
of the fundamental wisdom of the Time Zone Rule. This holds that
you should never, ever, under any circumstances, leave the Eastern Time
Zone of the United States.